Michael R. Clark, MD, MPH, MBA, is board-certified in psychiatry and a member of the Inova Behavioral Health Services team.
After months of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all eager for a return to normal. But with case counts still rising, the holidays will look pretty different this year.
Public health agencies are advising that people avoid gathering with others outside their immediate households, in order to curb the spread of the virus. That means many people will miss out on holiday travel and in-person celebrations with friends and family.
The loss of holiday traditions can be difficult to accept. But just because things are different doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful. Here’s how to approach this holiday season unlike any other.
Fight Back Against Holiday Depression
It’s easy to idealize the holidays. In reality, holiday celebrations are rarely perfect. Whether it’s grieving lost loved ones, family arguments about politics or blizzards that upend travel plans, the season is often less ideal than we wish. Still, every year people find ways to get through the holiday rough patches. And there are strategies that can help.
1. Consider your goal. Ask yourself what the holidays mean for you. Is it a chance to take time off to disconnect and de-stress? An opportunity to connect with loved ones? Figure out what really matters so that you can find ways to meet that need this season.
2. Listen to your stress. Feeling really stressed? That’s your body trying to tell you something. If you’re anxious about gathering with relatives who aren’t taking social distancing seriously, it may be a sign that you should sit this one out. Worried about holiday spending when you’re on a tight budget? That’s a clue you should talk to your family about how to cut back this year.
3. Get creative. Once you identify your goals and your stressors, look for ways to achieve what you want (like connecting with loved ones) while avoiding the things you don’t (a lot of extra work). Make plans to connect with loved ones through phone calls or video chats. Send small gifts or handwritten cards to the people you care about. If your budget is causing you to toss and turn at night, brainstorm some cheap ideas for creating happy holiday memories. (Snowball fights, home movie nights and making paper snowflakes don’t cost a thing.)
4. Focus on the good. Look for silver linings. You may be missing family members — but that means you have meaningful relationships in your life. You may not be able to take the New Year’s trip you were planning on, but are there other things you can do with that extra time? Reflecting on the things you’re grateful for can be a powerful pick-me-up.
5. Give yourself permission to be sad. While it’s helpful to look at the positive, that doesn’t mean you should bottle up your feelings. It’s okay to feel lonely and sad about the people and traditions you’re missing this year. Go ahead and grieve those losses, but try to balance them with positive reminders of the good things in your life.
6. Find alternatives. Holidays are steeped in tradition and nostalgia — so when they don’t go as planned, it can feel doubly hard. Instead of thinking of what you’re missing, frame it as an opportunity to create new traditions. Take a Channukah hike or a Christmas day nature walk. Try out a crazy new recipe. Watch a movie that’s meaningful to you. It may not be exactly what you’d do in a “normal” year. But making small-but-meaningful choices can help fill the void.
7. Give back. Extending kindness to others is a win-win: You’ll make their day brighter, and probably end up feeling happier in the process. Deliver some homemade cookies to a neighbor who lives alone. Donate to a charity doing work you believe in. Send notes to your friends and family, telling them what you love most about them.
8. Take care of yourself. When you’re feeling down, it’s more important than ever to take care of your body. Try to eat well, get regular exercise and plenty of sleep, and only drink alcohol in moderation.
The holiday season is often stressful on its own, and COVID-19 has made it even harder. If you’re struggling, it’s okay to ask for help. The mental health professionals at Inova Behavioral Health Services can help you manage mental health challenges and substance-use disorders.
Help support Inova Behavioral Health Services